Whanau as first teachers

Dr Kathie Irwin

The hundred year journey from Nuhaka to Harvard


The Story

In May, 2014, a Harvard University graduation booklet included the tribal names of Ngati Porou, Rakaipaaka, and Ngati Kahungunu. It was a Harvard Law Graduation and a young Māori woman was graduating Master of Laws, one of only a small group of Māori to ever have graduated from that Faculty. Though a small number of whanau had flown some twenty or so hours to be at the ceremony, it had taken her whanau four generations, across a hundred years, to get her there. And the support of the Nga Pae o Te Maramatanga Fulbright Scholarship.

This is the story of that legacy. Stories are told in many genres. This is a non-fiction piece, a true story, though for significant periods of it, it read like fiction to a wider New Zealand community, who did not think it possible. The clock on the timing of the one hundred years started in 1914, in Nuhaka, when the young woman’s maternal great grandmother, Horiana Te Kauru, after whom she is named, made two life changing decisions. First, as a fifteen year old girl she made the decision to convert from the Morman Church to the Presbyterian Church. Second, she made the decision to leave Nuhaka to attend Turakina Māori Girls College.


The Legacy

Turakina was a Presbyterian Māori girls school established in 1905. Horiana started there in 1915, the 149th pupil, earning the coveted honour of Dux in 1917. In 1918 she took up her first teaching position at Waiohau in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, in a Presbyterian mission school. Research of the Presbyterian records suggest that she was the first Māori woman to be appointed to teach in the mission schools. Education was her pathway to a radically new future. That choice had a profound impact on successive generations of her descendants, long before the government would have a positive education strategy for Māori. In 1914 people were still talking about Māori being a dying race; and education for girls was not a priority in any national or regional educational agenda. Horiana was a pioneer with a courageous vision for her future, she backed herself and attained every goal she set herself.

During her 1918 posting Horiana met a fellow missionary who would later become her husband. He had been posted to Maungapohatu in 1918 to work amongst the Tuhoe people. His name was John Laughton. Born in the Orkney Islands in 1891, he immigrated to New Zealand with his father in 1903, following his mother’s death. John and Horiana married in 1921 and had five children. On their marriage certificate, in the section marked occupation, Horiana had recorded ‘teacher’, ensuring all her descendants would be able to clearly identify her professional pedigree.

John Laughton was ordained as a Presbyterian Minister in 1921 and dedicated his life to being of service to his faith in Māori communities. He became a fluent speaker of Māori and a passionate advocate for te reo me ona tikanga. In 1942 he was appointed the Moderator of the Presbyterian Assembly of New Zealand. He led the group that formed the Māori Synod in the Presbyterian Church in 1945 and when, in 1956, it was constituted, he was appointed as its first Moderator. As part of the resourcing of the Māori Synod he wrote a Māori services book and worked with a team to plan, develop and build Te Maungarongo Marae at Ohope, the Presbyterian national marae, arguing that Māori needed to be able to worship in te reo Māori, in Māori ways and in Māori contexts. He blessed the opening of Te Maungarongo Marae in 1947.

Their fourth child was a daughter, Kathleen, who became a teacher. She married a teacher, Keith Cameron, a Pakeha Catholic of Irish and Scots descent. They were both teaching in Māori Schools when they met: she at Whakarewarewa and he at nearby Rotoiti. The Cameron’s had three children. Kathleen taught through her pregnancies and was teaching soon after the children were born taking them to school with her. By 1961, when they won appointments in schools in Hastings both had fulfilled the requirements of what was called country service and had established strong teaching backgrounds. Keith was appointed Principal at Raureka School and Kath one of the senior teachers. She was tracking to become one of the early Māori women principals.


Whanau as first teachers

The details of this story come easily to me to tell: this is my whanau. Keith and Kath Cameron are my parents. Reverend John and Mrs Horiana Te Kauru Laughton, my maternal grandparents. The young Harvard graduate is my daughter, Horiana. Long story short, our whanau have skin in the education game, serious skin, across four generations.

A key message of the one hundred year legacy was the fact that whanau were our first teachers. We lived, breathed, ate and drank education in our whanau: at home, at school, and at most social gatherings we were part of as children. In our lives teachers socialised with other teachers, we grew up with their children. Mercifully. Because – to be frank – even when I was born in 1956, the government aspirations for Māori in education were none to flash. Assimilation was still hanging in the air as government policy, though the first officially recorded use of the term ‘integration’, which would replace it, appeared in 1955.

I was blessed to have the parents that I did. They gave me hope, they required me to chart a strong future based on education – I had aspirations of being an Opera singer – they role-modelled the value of a strong work ethic and they required all of their children to be of purposeful, public service. They enabled me to live and be Māori, amongst my extended whanau, as a matter of course, whilst also requiring participation and achievement in the school system that they were such passionate advocates for.

In my third form year everyone had to write and present a speech in public. I did mine on my grandfather and won the third form prize for it. From that 3rd form speech prize I was encouraged to enter other Māori speaking competitions. Debating and public speaking became a major part of my secondary school education. Freire would say that this was all adding to an early “conscientisation”. He was right – but the point was that those kinds of debates and discussions about topical issues were more common at our home than they were at school. I gained an early understanding from home about the impact that social activism can have at the structural, institutional and personal levels. Just as so many young Māori will have over the last two generations through the Waitangi Tribunal Claim process.



New Zealand is viewed globally as the place where Māori education and development provide exemplars for the rest of the world to learn from. In April a delegation of Ministers arrived in New Zealand from the Canadian Government to do just that. The reality in our history has been that the government was simply in the way until relatively recently, historically speaking, and that is why there is still such a gap between the educational performance of the Treaty partners. That is changing primarily because whanau, hapu and iwi backed themselves to create the pathways to the future that they wanted. Māori didn’t give up on being Māori.

In New Zealand transformational educational change has been led by whanau, hapu and iwi; government policy has followed the hearts of the people, not lead them. Radical, passionate, courageous individuals have paved the way for others to follow. And follow they have.

I love that I am descended from a few of them and know lots of others who are too.


Categories: Education
Dr Kathie Irwin
About the author

Dr Kathie Irwin

Dr Kathie Irwin, (Ngati Porou, Rakaipaaka, Ngati Kahungunu) is the CEO and Founder of Hope Brokers Inc, a consultancy specialising in Public Policy, Tertiary Education and Research & Evaluation. Dr Irwin built a career as an academic specialising in Māori education, research and development through positions at Massey University (1981 – 1988), Victoria University (1988 – 2000), Christchurch College of Education (2000 – 2001), Te Kohanga Reo National Trust (2002 – 2005), and Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi (2005 – 2008). Dr Irwin’s passion drives her to contribute to nation building in innovative and creative ways that are inspired by her Ngati Porou ancestor Sir Apirana Ngata's whakatauaki (proverb) "E tipu, e rea". This proverb speaks to the possibilities models of change that create authentic social, cultural and economic inclusion.